Three ways of interpreting María Silvia Corcuera’s work.

Nelly Perazzo

Active member of the Fine Arts National Academy

Arthur Danto has described three ways of interpreting art1: the formalistic approach, the analysis of art as a cultural product, and the philosophical (or, as he calls it, the “embodied meanings”). In the second one, the art piece is considered as a reference and a way of expressing the inner workings of a culture. While – as Danto clarifies – the forms differ from one culture to the next, the issues transcend cultural differences, because beyond the connection between art and a specific context in time and place, there is a deeper, wider connection with the meaning of the piece. Thus, we rely on the third way, in which the theorist searches for meaning and the way in which that meaning is embodied in the material object that holds it. This is an attempt to understand the thought or concept that the piece expresses in a non-verbal manner.

These reflections led me to suspect that María Silvia Corcuera’s work can be approached from myriad perspectives. In each and any of these viewpoints, all three elements are present: their formal quality, their personal and functional connection with the culture of her times, and their “existencial deepness”. On this opportunity, we shall select three possible approaches among the many possibilities her work has to offer. These are: its relationship to anthropology, to the textile, and to signs related to Argentinian identity. Themes that are, of course, deeply intertwined.

The fact that María Silvia Corcuera belongs to a family that is not only secular, but also particularly specialized, is no minor detail. Her father, due to his profession, enabled her to travel and to gather knowledge about diverse places and cultures. Her mother is an authority on Latin American anthropology, especially on textiles. The nomadic aspect of her childhood and adolescence allowed her to tune her perceptiveness of difference and to get acquainted with different ethnicities deeply connected to her country’s past.

In an attempt to avoid deviating the focus from her work with possible filiations of the anthropologic register in it, let us draw from her production instances of allusions, clues, incitements to reflection. The theme of tears, for example, appears frequently. In “Mar de Llanto” (Sea of Weeping), of a staggering grey tone; in a large surface she distributes the shape that identifies them, in methodically orientated waves, not only in different directions, but also with varying degrees of height and definition. In one of the piece of the series “Los Escudos” (The Shields), the tears are organized from its center towards its edges. They can also be spotted occasionally inside a box, or on one of her peinetones. This recurrent use of certain elements can be found as well in the series “Las Protegidas” (The Protégées), with cutouts from school notebooks, disposable napkins, silk, or silver sheets of paper. That the theme of tears is connected with the artist’s commitment to her country, as we shall discuss later, is worthy of note. As for the anthropological viewpoint, let us mention her register on certain Condorhuasi period pottery statuettes (500 to 250 A.D.) and on some Candelarian culture vases (0 to 300 A.D.)2

B. Canal Feijóo reconstructs the cursed legend of the widow and her crying from Chaco and Santiago del Estero, and shows depictions of the bird-woman or the bird-man “from whose eyes tears fall like a deluge”.3

These legends are ethical expressions and architects of the popular soul, and María Silvia Corcuera believes that closeness to the popular is an unavoidable communicational need. She has proven this time and again in her fancy for Latin American fairs, in her search for dialog between her creations and the spectator, in her work for the Children’s Museum in Buenos Aires since 2000. In Corcuera’s words, “that which is popular is not learnt, it is experienced”. An example of this interest is her usage of antique bateas (a sort of wooden trough, usually oval shaped, used mainly for washing) of the Inca and Colonial traditions in the series “Las Suplicantes” (The Supplicants). Occassionaly inverted, but always used as a base for linear, tall, proud standing, threatening elements that, somehow, evoke the outlines of contemporary cities. Thus is set a contrast between city and countryside, since it is evident that, as is the case with the batea, our artist does not associate folklore with urbanity. Her metaphorization of the urban profile, with its sharp edges, is for her an application of her experience with tridimensional pieces from the Aguada culture (600 to 900 A.D.), with their tactile and rounded shapes, so distant from the desolation of the great conglomerates and so close to the deep search for mankind through imagery.

This occurrence reminded me of a dialogue with Alejandro Puente, who told me he started to feel his identification with Latin America in 1968, while he was living and working in New York. It was precisely the cultural differences he sensed in the great city that gave him “the possibility to feel and think in the need to include a place as a reference, with everything that this decision implies both in physical data and in memory.4 Like Alejandro Puente, María Silvia Corcuera is connected through the use of dyed, hanging threads: in the former, associated to the concept of quipus, i.e. of the communicational; in the latter, she sets bonds to the concept of beard (Condorhuasi culture) or head hair, as it appears in her 2006 work “La Mirada Cerrada” (The Closed Gaze). Canal Feijóo, instead, relates this to the folk legend of the “Umita”. This legend describes “a lone head, disembodied, suspended in midair, with hair so long that it reaches the ground”. It is an odd piece of northern folklore, he points out, that has a counterpart in the indigenous folklore of other American countries. This piece with colored strings led our artist’s interest on Paracas fabrics in ancient Perú (300 B.C. to 200 A.D.) to grow. These testimonies caused her to focus on the polysemy of the mantle as an element of protection and warmth, the notion of the sacred, the hidden, the obscured, that we discover time and again in different manifestations throughout her works. The relation with the anthropological does not stem, as we see in M.S.C., from an explicit will; rather, it is ambiguous, elusive, as in her production, where what is perceived more clearly is her ability to dare travel the rough, sinuous paths of the constant transformations of a reality beyond grasp.

At this point, it is impossible not to perceive the connection with the textile. In the decade of the 90s, we can see female profiles enigmatically wrapped in gauze in one of her peinetones series. In the following decade, this connection grows deeper through three paths: needlework, rag and dress or mantle. Needlework appears in the first years of the current century in “Cosiendo la Memoria” (Sewing Memory) or “Utopías Sostenidas” (Sustained Utopias) I & II, where we find the artist once again ripped apart by national avatars. In these cases, needlework suggests the notion of staunching, repairing, reuniting. But this is not the only resource Corcuera uses, as can be seen in “Ciudad Amordazada” (Muzzled City), where she resorts to using rags, as in the series “Los Pájaros” (The Birds), or in some of her shields – in which we can perceive not only the accuracy with which she handles the plasticity of the folds, but also a hidden allusion to constraint, to defense, to movement, in a field of existing or possible threat. The shield-dresses complete that subjacent notion of an ancestral need for protection, for warmth, for sheltering the manifest, everyday elements in a symbolic and sacred plane. Ruth Corcuera5 wrote about the threads as a metaphor of the life-giving breath that ensures the permanent union between the actions of this life and the supernatural.

This relationship with the textile places M.S.C. on the constellation chart – as Adorno would phrase it – of Latin American artists that have hybridized textile and sculptural elements during the last decades while exploring new styles, such as Marta Minujín, Lygia Clarck and Ernesto Neto. The Venezuelan artist Milton Becerra has achieved, like María Silvia Corcuera, a connection between the textile and the anthropologic, related to archaic rituals, to a Latin American cosmogony; Edgardo Madanes works with materials that bond him to a place; Nora correas has created pieces about the body and its preservation; sculptor Lydia Galego has developed an original technique that involves using textiles as the skin of her sculptures – which are in and of themselves deeply rooted in the anthropological dimension; Susana Dragotta has shown her interest on popular wardrobe and entertainment. As we can see, this is a vast field of creativity.

And, at last, we come to find a viewpoint that, with an extraordinary sense of humour, evokes Argentinian tradition. M.S.C. lets her fantasy run free about an 1830 trend in Buenos Aires: that of women wearing huge peinetones, which were carved by lithograph Bacle to emphasize their ridiculous excessiveness. In María José Herrera’s words, “the artist chose the format of the peinetón, an elegant organic shape similar to a hand fan, to tell us about the things that exist in current women’s minds”.6 M.S.C. uses time as a playground. The evoked past is on the threshold of the present we live, intensely, with commitment. These peinetones that reply to humor are flamboyant and colorful; while others, white and sculpturesque, are related to bitter moments of our country’s history. Corcuera has also used the shape of the peinetón in sculpture, like the one that she sent to the Museo Larreta’s garden in 2009. There are also peinetones in which she uses the written word, the word of poets, like Olga Orozco, César Vallejo, personal favourites like Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares, both of which she met as a child. Once again, she shuffles time, to recreate and take part in the commotion that these words caused. But M.S.C.’s connection to the written word is another matter altogether.

María Silvia Corcuera dives into the past and the present, and suffers them. As an artist, she rescues a dialogue that she invites us to participate in. Doubtlessly the stimuli that await us down that path will suggest new ways to approach this work full of unexplored edges.

1 Arthur Danto, The abuse of beauty. Aesthetics and the concept of art. Published by Paidós Estética, Buenos Aires, 2005.

2 LEIVA, Carlos. A story never told. Catalogue of the Adan Quiroga Museum patrimony. Published by Sarquis, Catamarca, Argentina.

3 CANAL FEIJÓO, B. Burla, Credo, Guilt in Anonymous Creation. Published by Nova, Buenos Aires, 1951.

4 PERAZZO, Nelly. Alejandro Puente. Art as the search and assertion of a regional identity. Published by Art Nexus magazine, nº 34, October-December 1999.

5 CORCUERA, Ruth. Prehispanic art: creation, development and persistence in textile art. Academy topics: Prehispanic Art: creation, development and persistence. Fine Arts National Academy, Buenos Aires, 2000.

6 HERRERA, María José. María Silvia Corcuera Terán: Beauty is everywhere, biography. Published by Angel Guido Art Project, Buenos Aires, 2009.